Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ephemera, the holiday edition

It seems like a good time to trot out some of the more festive holdings from our vast collection of ephemera.

Tom tells me these German Santa postcards are relatively valuable, especially as the Santas aren't wearing the typical red garb, but purple. This antique-postcard site features some similar examples, and suggests that the one on the right is a "Belsnickle Santa."

The Belsnickle seems to be haunting me lately. Recently, a friend told me that her father was in Vienna, and had been beaten by the Belsnickle, a character who travels around with Santa and sort of plays "bad cop" to Santa's good cop. The Belsnickle carries a stick and hits those he thinks have been bad. My friend wasn't sure why her father was targeted, other than being a tourist, and an American tourist at that.

When I was teaching at Ohio State, a student in one of my folklore classes there did a wonderful (and slightly disturbing) fieldwork project about her own family's tradition of the Belsnickle, though she didn't use that term. Every Christmas Eve, one of her family members would dress up as Santa and break into the house, carrying a stick s/he would use to "beat" the kids. Before you start "tsk"-ing, there was more chasing and brandishing of the stick than any "beating," and the kids would scream in mingled horror and sounded not unlike the thrill of going to a staged haunted house at Halloween.

This student's family was German-American, and had lots of other typical German-American holiday traditions to accompany this--the usual foodways and the pickle ornament, for example. In doing some trolling around for information about the Belsnickle, I discovered a site that claims that this is an Appalachian custom, which is interesting given the stereotypical view of Appalachian folklore being rooted exclusively in Scots-Irish tradition.

The description of the Belsnickle's travels reminds us, again, that Christmas used to be a much more raucous festival of misrule than it is these days: lots of drinking, going from door-to-door demanding food and libations, and general bad behavior. We now seem to have limited that kind of thing to New Year's Eve.

Anyway, enough of the folklorist ranting--more ephemera!

Here's one of my favorites: a card presumably intended for a husband to give his wife, circa the 1930s-1940s, I'm guessing. The dishcloth on the front is actually a small piece of gingham fabric!

Ships seem to have been a popular Christmas-card theme in the 1920s and 1930s; why, I'm not sure, other than the usual church = ship connection. We bought all of these in Colorado, so it's not because they came from a coastal location. I love the stylized look of these.

This one, at least, clearly seem to be referencing the "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" carol:

And finally, my all-time favorite. I distinctly remember finding this one: I was sorting through a box of postcards and such at an antique mall in Fort Collins, and spotted the black-bordered envelope. Having never seen an actual Victorian mourning card, I thought I'd finally found one. And sure enough, when I opened it up, the inside card also had a black border. But here's what it says:

On that cheerful note: happy holidays, dear readers! Hope it's a peaceful and merry few weeks for you, and that you don't get beaten by the Belsnickle (unless that's what you asked for).


yarmando said...

The Belsnickle reminds me of a bit in David Sedaris's Six to Eight Black Men:

"They'd kick [the child] and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him back to Spain."

Rosemary said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sending that link. Apparently, child abuse is an even more widespread Xmas custom than I imagined... ;^)

Leave it to David Sedaris to enlighten us. My favorite essay of his is still the one where he tries to explain the Easter Bunny to his French teacher. He's got it right, that you learn a lot--sometimes more than you want to know--about a culture by asking about its holiday traditions.